Unmukt Chand's season of reckoning

The head seems screwed on right, and the bat does come down and follow through smoothly. On the anniversary of the "most brilliant time" of his life, here's hoping Chand will keep scoring runs, reward or not.

Updated: August 27, 2013 13:24 IST
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There's nothing quite like the captain of a team playing a defining innings in a big match. There are quite a few of these instances. For people following Indian cricket, nothing probably comes close to MS Dhoni's heroics in the final of the 2011 World Cup, though Kapil Dev's unbeaten 175 against Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup is perhaps less memorable only because few of us saw him in action.

More recently, there was Unmukt Chand's unbeaten 111 in the final of the 2012 Under-19 World Cup final - exactly a year ago, on August 26, in Townsville, Australia. Against Australia. It won't be fair to say that the Indians were not the favourites, but in such conditions, India are never really tipped to win. They did though.

Captaincy is clearly a spur for Chand. It was a smart move on the part of the powers that be to keep the members of the team largely together for a fair period leading up to the World Cup. "I was used to being the captain and the players were used to me as the captain," Chand tells me over the phone from Singapore, where he is a part of the India Under-23 squad at the Asian Cricket Council's Emerging Teams Cup. "We were together and the camaraderie was great. We wanted to give it our best and we did."

In any case, that century was the second one Chand had scored in a big final. Prior to that, in April, in Townsville again, Chand had scored 94 against England in the semifinal and an unbeaten 112 against Australia in the final of a quadrangular Under-19 tournament. Soon after, Chand had 116 and 121 in the semifinal and final of the Under-19 Asia Cup. And if those weren't proof of his big-match temperament, Chand scored 116 for Delhi in the Vijay Hazare Trophy final against Assam in March this year.

"I have been very fortunate to play big innings in tournament finals. That's what you want to do, isn't it, deliver when it matters and win matches for your team," he says when I ask him about the sequence.

Singapore hasn't really been too spectacular for him, and with Pakistan setting India only a 160-run target in the final, Chand had to play a Gayle-esque innings to keep his record for tournament finals going. He didn't, managing only 15. KL Rahul, who failed not once in the whole tournament, did the job instead, scoring 93 not out in India's win.

And that brings us to the bit that is forgotten when we talk about Chand's success in tournament finals - what apart from those innings?

Yes, there was that 151 against Railways on a seaming pitch in his debut Ranji Trophy season (2010-11), but a first-class average of 39.27 from 21 games doesn't sit too well with a youngster many think of as the next big thing in Indian cricket. "Consistency is the key," he says, philosophically, but expectedly. "I was in really good form prior to the IPL this year. In T20s, it's difficult to be consistent. But I don't want to think much about expectations. The focus is to better myself. I have had some great experiences in my career already and the idea is to keep playing and keep performing."

Speak to any Indian cricketer who hasn't yet played for India, and they will tell you that the trick is in having three-four good seasons in a row. Chand has clearly had a blessed time of sorts so far. Despite an average Ranji season (37.08) and a poor IPL VI (17.55), he is getting his chances. After Singapore, he goes straight to Visakhapatnam to take on New Zealand A as part of India A in two days' matches before turning captain for the limited-overs leg of the series. Then there is the Challenger Trophy, which will be followed by a very hectic domestic season.

For someone like Chand, a lot depends on how the next couple of seasons pan out. Is he good? Of course he is. Is he extraordinary? Not on the evidence of stats that mention only two first-class centuries so far, neither of them too big. The talent and temperament he has showcased so far will mean that he remains in the reckoning, not for the Indian team but one level below - for the time being. But the opportunities might start to dry up if there is nothing to make him stand out. And with Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir likely to be part of the Delhi team in the Ranji Trophy this year, who knows if Chand will get to open at all.

"I'm hoping to start the season on a strong note," he says. "Just play as much as possible and perform as well as I can. The competition is only with myself. I have to keep getting better."

The head seems screwed on right, and the bat does come down and follow through smoothly. Enough Under-19 stars have gone on to have great careers with the Indian team, but just as many promising youngsters have fallen by the wayside over the years. On the anniversary of the "most brilliant time" of his life, here's hoping Chand will keep scoring runs, reward or not.

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